EXCLUSIVE - by DOUGLAS SHEPHERD
A Scottish local authority which has recently axed garden waste collections, cut the school week, hived off home care services to a Trust, and warns it needs to find millions more in "efficiency" savings over the next five years, increased its spending on external consultants by a staggering 32 per cent in 2014/15.
And statistics released by Scottish Borders Council in response to a Freedom of Information request have revealed that the authority completed no fewer than 2,750 financial transactions with private firms, individual advisers and freelances over the last five years at a cost to the taxpayer of £6.821 million.
Between 2013/14 and 2014/15 the bill for these external "experts" soared from £1,163,000 to £1,539,252 (up 32.35%) at a time when SBC's revenue budget for core services was being rigorously scrutinised for spending cuts.
In a December 2013 press release the council told its 'customers': "Following the provisional confirmation of the council's allocation of resources for 2014/15 in the local government finance settlement, our future financial challenges over the next five years have been identified as a minimum of £24.5 million."
Councillors were also advised: "The public sector continues to face significant funding constraints as the Scottish Government continues to freeze council tax for a seventh year". Yet there seems to have been no instructions to officials to rein back on their spiralling outside consultancy budgets.
SBC introduced a four-and-a-half day school week in 2014 in another initiative aimed at saving cash. The report which recommended bringing in the so-called Asymmetric week claimed the Borders Education & Lifelong Learning service had been set an efficiency savings target of £10.99 million over a five year span from 2013/14.
In what appears to be an unbelievable reply to the FOI requester who asked for details of why each consultant was hired, the council claimed an exemption under legislation because "we do not hold the information". Does that mean the local authority is unaware of the reasons why individual payments of up to £378,000 were made from 2010/11 onward?
The response is accompanied by an 18-page file which lists all consultancy fees (there are 420 of them) of £1,000 or more during the last five financial years.
Research shows the beneficiaries include businesses specialising in activities ranging from financial management to 'change' management, stress management, construction and engineering, artists, choreographers, film makers, fish pass designers, restoration experts, environmental and countryside management, and problem solvers in human resources.
Halcrow, the infrastructure development consultants, who have been providing specialist services for the Borders Railway project, topped the payments league in each of the five years covered. They picked up £345,862, £232,692, £189,813, £378,389 and £334,541 which adds up to a grand total of £1,481,295.
A number of the country's largest consultancies appear regularly throughout the five years of statistics. The information excludes the substantial sums SBC has paid for advice from private law firms.
The rising trend in the use of the private sector is in direct conflict with the advice given to Scottish local authorities in 2013 by UNISON, the local government trade union.
Following a survey of all 32 councils UNISON concluded: "We are concerned that despite substantial cuts in public spending local authorities continue to spend money on expensive private consultants. Even before current budget cuts it was important not to waste money.
"Now that services and jobs are being cut it matters even more. This raises key questions as to why local authorities do not use their own staff to do the work or why advice and support is not sought from other authorities or via the Improvement Service to avoid these high costs.
"If the current round of redundancies and early departures has led to a skills shortage then this is a real concern for the future of local government".
Anyone who wants to read the full list of consultancy payments can find the statistics in the Freedom of Information archive on SBC's website. It is FOI number 7741 which should be entered into the search box.